August 24, 2019
Water in Kilauea: The Impact and Potential Aftermath
Lava fountain at Kilauea, captured on Oct 5, 1983
Water was found in Kilauea, the most active volcano on the island of Hawai’i, on July 25, according to US Geological Survey (USGS)’s most recent report.
Last week, we reached out to Janet Babb and Dr. Carolyn Parcheta, experts with the USGS, via email to learn more about these findings and what they could mean for Kilauea, the island of Hawaii, and its residents.
A Bit of Context…
In addition to being the most active of the five volcanoes on the island of Hawai’i, it’s also the youngest, Volcano Discovery reports.
“Kilauea is one of the two Hawaiian volcanoes that has erupted multiple times in recorded history,” said Babb. “The other is Mauna Loa.”
The Pu’u eruption at Kilauea began in 1983 and lasted 35 years, but Babb said there is evidence indicating the volcano has undergone eruption cycles as long as 60 years.
Lava flows from Pu’u buried 48 sq mi of land and expanded the island by 500 acres, states the USGS’ 30 year summary sheet of the eruption.
Kilauea is Not Erupting
Although Kilauea is not currently erupting, the USGS expects that it will erupt again and advises residents to familiarize themselves with the hazard map of the volcano as well as the warning signs of an eruption.
“Some of the warning signs residents can (and do) look out for include: an increasing number of earthquakes (especially dozens of earthquakes in a period of minutes to hours), ground cracking near areas where magma is trying to rise, plants that are suddenly dying, or the sudden onset of steam and blue-ish SO2 gas, as well as any color changes in the rocks around them,” Parcheta noted. “Any changes in rock color indicates it’s oxidizing, chemically decaying into a softer and easily breakable material.”
Once an eruption has begun, Parcheta said the loud booms begin occurring in the air rather than underground. She also said they can be heard from further distances at this point, 0.5 to two miles away.
“The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) is not responsible for preparing, disseminating, or enforcing evacuation plans,” she added. “We simply provide updates on the status of the volcano. The Civil Defense at the county and state levels decide who evacuates, how they evacuate, and where they evacuate to.”
Boiling Down to the Water in Kilauea
While the source of the water in Kilauea has not been confirmed yet, Parcheta and articles published by the USGS suspect the water has appeared as the result of recent rainfall and groundwater.
“At the moment, both are possible, feasible [answers],” Parcheta said. “But groundwater is the most likely source.”
The water is located at an elevation of about 1936 ft, the USGS reports. They mention the surface pond is no more than a couple yards deep, but the visible pond could above the saturated zone, which could be several tens of yard deep.
The body of the waters total thickness could have profound impacts on potential hazards. A puddle would scarcely affect an eruption, but if rising magma penetrates deeper water, it could result in an explosive scenario – and there is evidence that indicates eruptions like this have happened in Kilauea’s past.
Both Babb and Parcheta said there is no way to stop the water at its source or remove it from the volcano.
“While there’s nothing we can do to affect the water, it would neither set off an eruption nor prevent one,” Parcheta said.
The 1000 degree Celcius temperature difference between the water and magma would cause it to boil off or flash to steam, Parcheta said.
Kilauea is Not Alone
The discovery of water in Kilauea has sparked interests around the country, however, it’s not the only volcano to ever have water in it – and again, this likely isn’t the first time something like this has ever happened in Kilauea, either. It’s simply the first time it’s happened in recorded history.
“There is a small pond at the top of Mauna Kea called Lake Waiau,” Parcheta explained. “It is sacred, and has a long established history in Hawaiian legends.”
Lake Waiau took form long after Mauna Kea’s last eruption and is unrelated to the volcano’s activity, she continued.
Although there are no other Hawaiian volcanoes with ponds at their summit, there is groundwater throughout Hawaii, which Parcheta said technically implies there’s water at every volcano.
“However, there is very little evidence that this affects eruptions and eruptive behavior (explosive vs effusive),” she noted. “Littoral cones are the only features readily identified on the island where lava has interacted directly with water as if flowed into the ocean. The seawater helped the lava fragment into smaller ash sized particles and these cones can be found around the coastline at most old ocean entries, but the seawater does not affect lava erupting at the vent.”
The HVO implements a variety of tools to monitor volcanic activity at sites like Kilauea so that local government can use the information to keep the residents of Hawaii safe.
“There are four monitoring disciplines at the HVO, which span the range of quantifiable behaviors that we can observe,” Parcheta said. “Each discipline has its own unique tools that help us understand what the volcano is doing.”
For example, Parcheta said the geology team has a camera that observes the areas of interest around the clock and makes routine visits to areas that are not under 24/7 video surveillance.
“We also have a dense network of GPS, tiltmeters, seismometers, and gas sensors that document what the volcano is doing,” she continued. “Some of these data streams are real time, some are hourly, and some are daily. The staff meet together every week to share any recent changes and try to understand and discuss all of the data streams in the same context.”
In The Event of An Eruption
Although it’s the County’s duty to handle evacuations, Parcheta said the USGS will respond with immediate on-the-ground observations, helicopter overflights during the day, and actively release updates to both the Civil Defense and public.
“We will be there to document as much as we can in the effort to better understand and communicate volcanic hazards, both their immediate and trickle down effects,” she said. “Our purpose is to provide citizens and civil defense with the best information possible about the beauty and risks for the volcanoes they live on, why the volcanic processes occur in the manner that they do, and how these processes will impact day-to-day life on our island.”
Hawaii County is also responsible for overseeing eruption recovery, which is a long-term process that takes multiple phases, according to their website.
“Recovery can take anywhere from 5-10 years, depending on the scale and duration of the disaster,” Hawaii County states online.
The County also encourages those interested in assisting with recovery to connect with them or make a donation to the Hawai’i Island Volcano Recovery Fund.
Kilauea is the youngest, most active of the five volcanoes on the island of Hawai’i. Recent reports released by the USGS show that water has been discovered at the summit of Kilauea, which could trigger an explosive reaction if rising magma reaches deep water.
However, the water itself couldn’t trigger an eruption or prevent one. Not to mention, this probably isn’t the first time water has been at Kilauea, and it’s not the only volcano to have water at its summit.
There are a variety of warning signs residents are encouraged to look out for that could indicate there’s an impending eruption, including: back-to-back earthquakes, ground cracking near magma, rocks changing color (oxidizing), plants dying, as well as the sudden onset of steam and blue-ish SO2 gas.
You can keep up with the HVO’s monthly updates on Kilauea and other volcanoes on the island by subscribing online.
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